What is a Seder plate and what are the symbolic foods of Passover that are on the Seder plate ?
The centerpiece of the Seder table is the Seder plate. In fact, the Seder is not considered to be a Seder without the Seder plate being on and in the center of the Seder table. On the Seder plate rests the symbolic foods of Passover or Pesach:
(1) Charoset (also transliterated from Hebrew as: Charoseth, Haroset, or Haroseth; in Aramaic: Charoses; charoset or charoses is the name used for the following mixture), a mixture of sour-tinged or in other words, tart apples (or dates, among other fruits, often in combination), nuts (usually walnuts or almonds, but other nuts are used, often in combination), spices (usually cinnamon but ginger is also used among others, often in combination), sometimes honey and raisins, and wine or grape juice, usually red wine (there are numerous variations of this basic recipe based upon family traditions and the traditions of different Jewish communities worldwide). Charoset symbolizes the mortar with which the Hebrew slaves in Egypt created and used to build various buildings and cities for the King (Pharaoh) of Egypt. Biblical commentators also saw an indirect reference in the word Charoset to the Hebrew word Charsis or Cheres, meaning "clay" in Hebrew, to which Charoset symbolizes. Apples are used to commemorate apple trees, for in ancient Egypt, when the Pharaoh of Egypt gave an order that all first-born sons of Hebrews be killed to slow their population growth, Hebrew women gave birth to sextuplets without pain under apple trees, and out of sight of the Egyptians (Talmud, Mishnah, Pesachim 116). Charoset is also thick for the purpose of commemorating the mud with which the Hebrews slaves worked in (Talmud, Mishnah, Pesachim 116), and cinnamon and ginger spices are used to commemorate the straw which was used to make the mortar or cement so as to create bricks for the buildings and cities since the cinnamon and ginger plants resemble straw. Furthermore, the cinnamon and ginger plants are ground into a fine texture to commemorate the mud that the Hebrews worked in as slaves. Together with the nuts and the other ingredients, Charoset has a coarse texture and muddy color to it. However, Charoset is ultimately sweet in taste, so why is Charoset sweet in taste? Charoset is sweet because the sweetness symbolizes the kindness of G-d, which helped make even slavery more tolerable. In addition, all the aforementioned ingredients for Charoset - wine, nuts, raisins, apples, honey, and spices - are mentioned in the biblical book written by King Solomon known as the "Song of Songs" ("Shir ha-Shirim" in Hebrew). Since the Song of Songs describes a "love story" between G-d and the Hebrews/Jewish people, the sweetness of the Charoset symbolizes that even in conditions of hardship, we must recognize and acknowledge G-ds' love for us, the Hebrews/Jewish people.
(2) Baytzah (also transliterated from Hebrew as: Beitzah or Beitza or Baytza, meaning either a "roasted egg" or a "hard-boiled egg"; in Aramaic: Beya, Beyah, or Be'ah, also meaning to "please" or "to pray"), either a hard-boiled or roasted egg, has two symbolic meanings: (A) it primarily symbolizes the sacrifice brought by the Hebrews to the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem in biblical times, and (B) some rabbinical authorities have interpreted the baytzah as a symbol of mourning for the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in either 587 B.C.E. or 586 B.C.E. and also for the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. by the Romans. Since the ritual sacrifices could no longer be brought to the temples by the Hebrew/Jewish people, the egg symbolizes this loss. For the same reason, the egg became the traditional food for those in mourning.
(3) Zeroah (also transliterated from Hebrew as: Zeroa, meaning either "arm" bone or "shoulder" bone or "wing" in Hebrew which symbolizes the outstretched arm that G-d used in delivering the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt), is either a roasted lamb shank bone or if it is not available, a roasted chicken shank bone or roasted chicken neck (some use a roasted chicken leg) with some meat still on it. A shank bone or humerus bone is a long bone in either the arm or the forelimb that runs from the shoulder to the elbow. The Zeroah symbolizes the Korban Pesach ("Passover Sacrifice" in Hebrew, meaning the lamb used specifically for this ritual). Participants at the Seder table merely view this symbol and do not eat the meat on it.
(4) Karpas ("celery" or "parsley" in Hebrew, used in the Talmud for these two green vegetables and probably derived from the first use of the word Karpas in Jewish sources, in the biblical Book of Esther, where an unopened cotton plant was probably described as Karpas, or green in color. In the Talmud, the green color that Karpas described was applied to two green vegetables, celery and parsley, since in ancient times the two plants were often confused and referred to by the same name due to their leaves and seeds being similar in appearance. Karpas is a word borrowed from Farsi I.E. Persian/Iranian, in the country that provided the setting for the biblical Book of Esther, and means either "fine cotton" or "fine linen". In turn, the Persian/Iranian Farsi word Karpas is derived from the Sanskrit word for cotton, "Karpasa"; other claim Karpas derives either from the Greek "Karpos", meaning "fruit of the soil", or from Farsi I.E. Persian/Iranian "Karafs" or "Karats", meaning "Parsley" or "Celery".). Karpas is symbolized on the Seder plate by either celery, parsley, or any other non-bitter vegetable, such as a carrot, a piece of potato, or a radish. The Karpas is dipped into salt water (some Jewish communities have the custom to use either vinegar or lime juice or lemon juice instead of salt water) to symbolize tears shed by the Hebrews due to the hardships of the Hebrews as slaves in Egypt. This ritual began in the first and second century C.E. in Jerusalem and derives from the Roman custom to start a banquet or formal meal by first passing around vegetables as an appetizer or hors d'oeuvres before the serving of the main meal.
(5) Maror (alternate transliterated spelling from Hebrew: Marror, meaning "Bitter Herb" in Hebrew; plural form: Marorim, "Bitter Herbs"), represented by a bitter vegetable (often either prepared horseradish or horseradish root but other bitter vegetables are used based on the local custom of a Jewish community such as the leaves or stalks of lettuce, but not its roots), symbolizes the bitter life of the Hebrews during their time as slaves in Egypt, and finally:
(6) Chazeret (alternate transliterated spellings from Hebrew: Chazereth, Chazeres; like Maror, it means "Bitter Herb" in Hebrew) is a second bitter herb that is always a different type of bitter herb than the bitter herb used for Maror. However, not all Jewish people have the custom to include a second bitter herb on the Seder plate due to rabbinical authorities being divided on the issue of including a second bitter herb on the Seder plate. Romaine lettuce is often the type of second bitter herb that is used for the Chazeret, but celery is sometimes used instead of romaine lettuce. Some rabbinical authorities permit the use of iceberg lettuce or endives to represent the Chazeret. Horseradish can be used or any other type of bitter herb that fulfills the requirement of Maror, as long as the bitter herb used for Maror is different from the bitter herb used for Chazeret.
If a second bitter herb - Chazeret - is used on the Seder plate, then in Step #9 of the 15 ordered steps for conducting the Seder, the first bitter herb, the Maror - symbol of the bitterness of slavery that the Hebrews endured in Egypt - is dipped into the Charoset - symbol of the mortar created by the Hebrews that was used in building buildings for the Pharaoh (King) of Egypt - and then eaten. In Step #10 of the 15 steps for conducting the Seder, the second bitter vegetable - the Chazeret (representing the Maror in this ritual) is combined with the Charoset and Matzo (unleavened bread) to create a sandwich known as Hillel's Sandwich, named for the 1st century C.E. Rabbi Hillel I Ha-Zaken or Rabbi Hillel The Elder (about 50 B.C.E. - 10 C.E.), who stated that the Maror should be combined with the Paschal Offering and Matzo in the form of a sandwich. Since the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. which occurred a few years after Rabbi Hillel I's time, lamb sacrifices were no longer performed and so the rabbis in authority at the time instead substituted Charoset for the meat of the Paschal Offering.
If a Jewish family or Jewish community follows the authoritative rabbinical opinion to not include Chazeret on the Seder plate, then in Step #9, Maror is used and in Step #10, Maror is used again instead of the Chazeret.
The Seder table also includes a separate plate from the Seder plate which contains three sheets of unleavened bread ("Matzo" in Hebrew), each of which are placed on top of one another, each in a separate compartment in a specially designed cover called a Matzo Cover or in the folds of a large napkin on the Seder plate. Placing the three matzot or matzos on a separate plate is the prevailing authoritative rabbinical opinion but there are some rabbinical authorities who stipulate that there should be no separate plate with matzot or matzos on it and instead, the three matzot or matzos should be placed on the Seder plate along with the 5 or 6 symbolic foods of Passover or Pesach (5 or 6 symbolic foods depending on whether or not Chazeret is included on the Seder plate).
Seder Plate Arrangements
There are two primary arrangements of the symbolic foods on the Seder plate, based on the opinions of two authoritative rabbis in the 16th century C.E.: the first arrangement was created by Rabbi Moses Ben Israel Isserlis (1525-1572), known by his acronym as the "Rema" or "Remoh". This opinion states that there are five symbolic foods which are arranged according to the order that they will be used, beginning with whichever symbolic food is used first being closest to the person who leads the Seder. Most Ashkenazi Jews - Jews whose ancestors came from either Central, Northwestern, and/or Eastern Europe - follow this opinion. The second arrangement was created by Rabbi Isaac Ben Solomon Luria (1534-1572), known by his acronym as the "Arizal". This opinion states that there are six symbolic foods - one additional bitter herb - and they are arranged at the points of two triangles. The second bitter herb is used for making Hillel's Sandwich during the Seder, known in Hebrew as Korech. Most Sephardi Jews - Jews whose ancestors came from either Spain and/or Portugal - follow this opinion. Though the aforementioned two opinions are the most popular arrangements among Jewish people, there are other authoritative rabbinical opinions concerning the arrangement of the symbolic foods on the Seder plate, either based on the Arizal or Rema's opinion, or based on separate opinions outright.
In addition, there are three matzos that are placed on the Seder table, and along with the five or six symbolic foods, are arranged in different ways with each other based on one's custom, which can either be based on the two aforementioned opinions of the Rema and Arizal, or are based on separate authoritative rabbinical opinions outright.